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SIDIC Periodical XXX - 1997/3
Holiness in Judaism and Christianity (Pages 07 - 11)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Icons, rebels, stars and saints: holiness in the Catholic tradition
Joan Chittister, OSB


"Saintliness,” Jean Anouilh wrote in Becket, “is also a temptation.” The truth of the insight simmers in the center of the soul. Or perhaps it should. The gnawing inclination to affect sanctity by pious gestures, the possibility of being seduced by false forms of sanctity, the allure of plastic saints who parade across the stages of our lives wrapped in incense and holy clothing while the world stays steeped in pain, expose the horrors of the “temptation to saintliness.”
* Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, PA, is executive director of BENETVISION: A Resource Center for Contemporary Spirituality. A widely published author and noted national and international lecturer, she received the 1992 U.S. Catholic Award for her work for justice, peace, and equality in church and society. A social psychologist and communications theorist, Joan has published numerous articles and books including the two reviewed in this issue: A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God and There is a Season.

The Catholic tradition gives clear warning, strong models of a sanctity far beyond either the ethereal or the ascetic presentation of the self. Christian sanctity requires conversion to the will of God, immersion in the spirit of Jesus and commitment to the human community. It calls us to wrestle with the self, to take on the searing audacity of Christ and to give ourselves for the sake of the world around us. Christian sanctity is the living of the life of Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee feeding, curing, healing, and contending everywhere that he had come to bring the Reign of God. Its model is the Jesus who answered John's “Are you the one who is to come?” with “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”1 Clearly, the Christian does not go to heaven alone. When the holiness of some of us is built on the invisibility of the rest of us, good honest sin, artless self-centeredness, looks better than pseudo-saintliness.

Christian tradition makes the point painfully clear. We do not go to heaven by our own merit. We do not go to the heights of Christian spiritual development by preening our souls on ritual and holding ourselves above the fray of the human condition. On the contrary. The Christian saint is the one who has put on the mind of Christ and so put on the broken heart of the world. Such are the people whose sanctity challenges the lives of the rest of us.

Temptation to False Holiness
The notion occurs that what we may be tempted to spend our lives doing in the name of sanctity may not be worth doing at all. We may set out to be exactly what the world does not need and what Jesus would disdain as the mark of “a whited sepulchre.” That kind of sanctity is a snare of immense proportions for the sincere and the swindlers alike. For the sincere it poses the specter of a wasted life; for the swindler it threatens exposure. On the one hand, to seek sanctity in the wrong places is to risk an empty soul. To assume that regularity of devotions and rigor of discipline is the stuff of sanctity is to assume that we can make gods of ourselves for ourselves by ourselves. This is sanctity untested. On the other hand, to pretend sanctity for the wrong reasons is to guarantee a distorted soul. To posture in front of the human race, without substance, without benefit of tempering, without the currency of human significance as basis of exchange, is to twist the fibers of our lives into a tapestry of nothing. Sincere as it may be in its excesses, enticing as it may be in its public allure, false sanctity - sanctity steeped in the self - is not Christian. Sanctity must be for something beyond the satisfaction of the self, beyond a kind of protective piety or a bid for public approval.

When we set out to be holy in the Christian tradition, then, what exactly are we setting out to do and how shall we know it if we see it?

Communal and Social, or Personal and Private?
Styles of sanctity mark every period of Christian history, some of them startlingly simple, some of them verging on the neurotic. Christian sanctity has ranged from both total negation of life and total proclamation of the word. Choosing one from the other is the central spiritual challenge of every age. It has both personal and public meaning. Whatever its particular form in any given culture, the real saint has always been considered as much public witness as private devotee. Those were saints who touched the lives of others in significant ways as well as concentrated on their own.

The Christian saint becomes the Face of God at the centerpoint of life, reminding each of us that we are called to do more than exist and to be more than a breath lost in the night of time. What we take as the models of our own lives, then, not only changes us but turns our entire world around one degree at a time. Sanctity is not a private devotion. The summons to sanctity is an invitation to choose carefully the way we spend our souls, to choose for the gospel rather than for the sense of the perfect self, or the preservation of the perfect institution, or even for the security of a very banal salvation.

Christian sanctity is greater than the self, larger than private piety, more meaningful than religion for its own sake. It is no single state of life, no single work, no particular set of circumstances. It is as diverse as a Judean desert, a wedding feast in Cana, a temple in Jerusalem. The best of Christian tradition finds its saints in crowds as well as in hermitages, on mountain tops as well as in caves, at the resurrection as well as at the foot of the cross, in the noisy as well as the quiet, in women who defy the system to build a better world and in men who give their lives so that others may have life and have it more abundantly.”

A Memory for Greatness of Spirit
What the world calls saints, what “saints” call sanctity, says something to the rest of us about what our own lives can be. All of them bring to consciousness the notion that there may be far more to life than we are seeing. There may be far more in life than what we have managed to acquire. There may be far more that life demands of us than we are willing to give. Christian sanctity is clearly more a communal than a private concept, more a social than a personal process. What I am, the rest of the world has the right to be. What I am becomes benchmark for the rest of society as well. I carry on my back the obligation to be what the world needs me to be and I look in hope for those who have carried that same obligation before me. The Christian life requires a commitment to the life of the Christ who consorted with sinners, cured lepers, raised women from the dead, contested with the officials and challenged the state. It is a life of prophetic presence and selfless service in a world whose soul has gone dry.

Saints, as a result, have always been a part of Christian history. They are those who, clear of soul and straight of eye, chart their lives by remembering its meaning. Saints mark the way for those who come after them. They are the pathfinders, the models, the stars in the darkness of every generation who enable us to remember the glory of humanity as well as the magnetism of divinity. They give us promise of possibility in the depths of despair and hope in the midst of the mundane. They bring new light to those parts of life grown dull from neglect They remind us at our worst of what humanity can be at its best. They give us new insight into old truths, a new look at the God in our midst who goes among us so that “the blind may see and the deaf may hear and the poor may have proof of liberation.”

Saints have been used and misused, undervalued and overlooked, misunderstood and overrated in every generation. Some have been called 'saint' in one generation and ignored the next. Some have been underestimated in one time and overemphasized in another. But most have simply been the memory of the human race for greatness of spirit. Most have been simple people who, when thrust into situations of public meaning responded out of deep personal spirituality. The Sufi tell of the disciple who asked the elder,
“Is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then, of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”
“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”2

Christian devotion is nothing more than preparation for Christian sanctity. It cultivates the soul so that when the moment for holy presence finally becomes imperative, we will have been prepared to grasp and grip and seize it. Christian sanctity is a great deal more than “Christian devotion". Christian sanctity requires that we become what we seek so that others, in their own moments of spiritual contest, can have the comfort of it, too.

Our Need for Heroes
For those who ask, then, “Why have saints?”, the answer is, “Why not have saints?” Every generation needs heroes. It is not that saints are humans who have become divine. It is that saints are humans who have become fully human, fully the best that a human can be, fully attuned to life at its most meaningful. The saints are those around us in tiny neighborhoods and spacious offices who confront us daily with the great questions of life and bring to them the answer of themselves.

We search for the signs of the best in ourselves at all times and in all places. We measure ourselves by the measure of those who have wrestled with the same angels, lived in the same darkness, borne the same heat of the day and come to triumph, come to light, come to a new consciousness of the truth of life despite the pressures around them and the struggles within. We look for those around us who make life's great Jesus-story real and true. We watch for those who have touched Jesus and become new because of it so that we ourselves can find purpose in stretching to touch it.

The Problem with Defining Sanctity
The problem with defining saints is the problem of defining standards. Who is to say what 'sanctity' really is? In fact, can anyone else but I begin to know what I have been through in life and with what honor, what depth, what nobility? Can anyone know whether I have survived it with more or less valor, with more or less faith? Can anyone know what I have borne to be my best self? And does anyone really do it without struggle? They are questions of phenomenal import. St. Therese of Lisieux, whose papers were sanitized by her community for public consumption, was made to look to the world like putty in the hands of God. In the last days of her life, however, she writes in her personal journal: “I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism.”3 Clearly, lack of struggle is not of the essence of sanctity. It is struggling that makes for sanctity.

For centuries the church has confronted the human community with role models of greatness. We call them saints when what we really often mean to say is “icon,” “star,” “hero” - ones so possessed by an internal vision of divine goodness that they give us a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.

But sadly, two things have happened to the modern notion of saint: first, saints have become official; second, saints have become bland.

In the fourteenth century, after hundreds of years of identification of saints by popular acclaim, the Vatican developed a process and criteria to determine if the persons venerated by a local population were worthy of general emulation. The canonization process, for the most part, had both substance and merit. The proliferation of local saints by the people who knew them or were impressed by the fruits of their spirituality or the value of their works was a grand and perceptive gesture. If nothing, else, it has something to teach us about becoming aware of the character of those around us, those standing beside us today, bringing the white heat of the gospel to the ordinariness of the circumstances. Nevertheless, this redundancy of good served as much to blur the character of greatness as it did to preserve its image. “Saints” sprang up everywhere as every area, every region, every city, every village scrambled for relics and patrons.

At the same time, an officially constructed canonization process separated the people in need of models from the very personalities and forces that had given spirit to their lives in the here and now. In most cases, only those reputations that lasted far beyond the life of the person nominated for sainthood were seen as fit for examination by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. By that time, of course, their spiritual fame had often waned, their social influence dimmed.

The canonization process looked for the heroic in the good, separated the merely pious from the powerfully holy, wanted miracles as well as the proof of a good life to qualify a person for canonization, concentrated on professional religious figures to the prejudice of lay people, and men to the detriment of women, the rich rather than the poor, concentrated on ecclesiastical docility as a sign of holiness and judged cases according to the insights of centuries sometimes far removed.4

To this day, the process keeps popular hysteria from becoming the norm of holiness. It also runs the risk, however, of reducing holy passion to the level of prosaic piety. It hazards sanctifying the insipid. It chances turning goodness into cardboard. It disqualifies from consideration people who fall in the course of rising to new human heights. It cuts holiness form a common cloth: the theologically proper, the ecclesiastically docile, the morally safe. As a result, it eliminates from regard an entire body of people because of whom the very soul of the world has been stretched but who may not be synchronous with the current ideas of the church, who may not even be Catholic, who may not be without signs of flaw and struggle. It leads, imperceptibly but almost invariably, to a theology of disillusionment, the notion that only the perfect, the Christian, give us glimpses of the face of God - Moses and Abraham, the Samaritan Woman and Peter, David and Samson to the contrary.

A Sign for all Generations
Clearly not everyone who points the way to God for us may themselves be perfect. There are figures gleaming in their holy causes who are awkward in their personal lives. They are sometimes in confusion, as we are. They are often in conflict with themselves, as we are. They are virtuous beyond telling in one dimension and weak to the point of sin in others. At the same time, they hold a fire in their hearts bright enough to light a way for many. They are impelled by the will of God for humankind and they will brook no less. They stand on gilded stilts above the rest of their generation, their comrades, their kind and become a sign for all generations. They are a proof of possibility from ages past and a symbol of hope for ages yet to come. They stand in mute conviction of the age in which they live and challenge us to do the same. Most of all, they are important to us now. “One does not help only one's own generation,” the Hasidim teach. “Generation after generation, David pours enthusiasm into somber souls; generation after generation, Samson arms weak souls with the strength of heroes.”5

Sanctity in the Christian tradition requires far more than personal piety, then. It assumes a life so rooted in the will of God, so committed to others, and so large in the scope of its concerns that it raises questions in the hearts of the rest of us about the quality of our own souls, the depth of our own lives, the value of our own choices. The saint confronts us with the heart of Jesus and the mind of God. The saint takes our breath away. We see in them what we know that we ourselves should be and hang our heads, not in shame but in contemplation. The saint does not preach platitudes; the saint cries justice and gives service until justice comes.

Christian sanctity requires public commitment more than personal piety, as important as piety is for the cultivation of the Christian soul. Christian sanctity goes beyond the incarnation to the crucifixion, beyond presence to the other to the point of being willing to suffer for the other. Christian sanctity holds up for all to see the standards of the gospel in a world that prefers charity to justice. Christian sanctity brings each of us to our knees before the questions of the soul, challenges each of us to measure ourselves against a canon higher than our own, shows each of us the way beyond ourselves to others, beyond goodness to the gospel, beyond private and parochial concerns to cosmic commitment. The saint sees the world as God sees the world and responds wherever they are, however they must so that the Jesus who lives in them may live through them.

To Show God's Glory Waiting in the Normal
It is a dark and dangerous journey and means more than a fidelity to dogma, more than the preservation of doctrine, more than the keeping of the law. It demands high valor and great faith. It lives hidden sometimes as Charles de Foucauld did with the Arabs simply to build a private bridge between Islam and Christianity. It becomes hugely public sometimes as did de Las Casas in his defense of the humanity of the American Indians. It goes where it may not go and does what it may not do as did Catherine of Siena in her involvement in church politics and her criticism of the pope. It lives a fiercely abandoned life sometimes as did Franz Jaegerstaetter who alone of all his village refused induction into Hitler's army and was executed because of it. But always, always, it lives more out of principle than it does out of piety. It goes above and beyond the normal norms to show again God's glory waiting in the normal. It lives the daily in a way that challenges us all. And it is in no way amenable to the official standards of the day. Francis of Assisi stretched the mind of the church about wealth. Teresa of Avila expanded the vision of the church about the nature of private spirituality. Harriet Tubman taught the church in her courageous deceit what it could be in the face of fear. Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, Vatican official in World War II Rome, proved in his protection of Jewish refugees that the church was still capable of sanctity in a world full of sin.

Some hear the call to the demands of dailiness. Some prefer instead to make dailiness the excuse for not listening to the demands it really makes, for choosing piety rather than sanctity. Indeed, “Saintliness is also a temptation.” Indeed, saintliness can be its own sin, in which case we must learn to repent the private little nests we have made for ourselves in the name of the spiritual life. We must begin once again to walk the roads of Galilee with the One who brings us into ourselves to wrestle with the demons designed to keep us there, beyond ourselves to a world in need, and above ourselves to see the world as God sees the world. We must become what we all think we cannot be if we are ever to become what we are all called be: “icons,” “rebels,” “stars” and “saints.”

* Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, PA, is executive director of BENETVISION: A Resource Center for Contemporary Spirituality. A widely published author and noted national and international lecturer, she received the 1992 U.S. Catholic Award for her work for justice, peace, and equality in church and society. A social psychologist and communications theorist, Joan has published numerous articles and books including the two reviewed in this issue: A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God and There is a Season.

1. Matt. 11:4-6, New Standard Revised Version
2. Anthony de Mello, SJ, One Minute Wisdom, (Anand, India: Anand Press, 1985) p 17.
3. The Genuine Texts of St. Therese of Lisieux, Herder Korrespondenz 7 (1962/63) as quoted in Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, translated by J.R. Foster, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970) p 18.
4. Kenneth L. Woodward, Making Saints (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) pp 50-86.
5. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schoken Books, 1948) p 147.


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